Saturday, March 10, 2018

Life on the Mississippi: Review

Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (1883) is a book of two parts. The first third or so is devoted to describing the years he spent on the river learning the trade of a riverboat pilot. We follow the young Samuel Clemens as he works his way up from a cub to steersman. He describes the "prodigious" amount of memory it took to be a riverboat pilot in those days--to memorize the landmarks and the various depths of the water along the way and "shape of the river" (how the river really runs in contrast to how it may appear to the casual eye). Each time the young Clemens thinks he's stuffed his head as full as can be and learned everything there is to learn, his mentor starts in on a whole new set of things that every pilot ought to know. He has just managed to get comfortable with his knowledge when the Civil War breaks out and changes riverboat life forever--forcing Clemens into other lines of work before finally beginning his career as Mark Twain the writer.

The remaining two-thirds of the book finds Clemens returning to the river after twenty-one years. He wants to see what riverboat life is like now and he plans to travel under an assumed name and gather stories for future writing endeavors. That doesn't last--a man who knew him on the river recognizes him pretty quick and it isn't long before Clemens tries his hand at piloting the great ship. He does a pretty good job considering that the shape of the river has changed greatly in many sections and various landmarks from his day are gone altogether. 

The first third of the book is highly entertaining. His stories of learning the ways of the river are interesting and told in true Twain fashion. We also learn a great deal about life before the war. The remainder of the book is so-so. He spends a great deal of time describing the changes that have overtaken the river and he intersperses these descriptions with various anecdotes and, quite frankly, tall tales. This portion is choppy and uneven and also contains commentary on everything from the mercenary tactics of undertakers (squeezing the most out everyone for the most expensive funerals) to the unscrupulous ways of businessmen pawning off oleomargarine as butter and cotton seed oil as olive oil. Not that this commentary couldn't be interesting and telling of the times, but it interrupts the travelogue in the most distracting way. I much preferred Twain's tales of the river and life that connected more directly to it. ★★

A random remark, connecting Irishmen and beer, brought this nugget of information out of him: 
  They don't drink it, sir. They can't drink it, sir. An Irishman is lined with copper, and the beer corrodes it. But whiskey polishes the copper and is the saving of him, sir. (p. 171)

Partialities often make people  see more than really exists. (p. 181)

But you decided and agreed to stick to this boat," etc.; as if, having determined to do an unwise thing, one is thereby bound to go ahead and make two unwise things out of it, by carrying out that determination. (p. 226)

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